“Classics lost and found,” from the Independent

Source: “Classics lost and found: Authors pick the modern classic they would like to revive,” The Independent (UK), 30 July 2010

“According to the poet Ezra Pound, literature is the news that stays news. This spring and summer have seen that old saw cut deep,” writes Boyd Tonkin in the Independent last week. Tonkin cites the remarkable success of Alone in Berlin, a masterpiece about resistance to Nazism written shortly after the end of the war by the German writer Hans Fallada but never before translated into English. Alone in Berlin was an unexpected bestseller, making the UK Top 50 list in the spring of this year. When I was in London this April, copies of the book were stacked on tables at the entry of most of the Waterstones and other bookstores I visited.

Alone in Berlin is the title selected by Penguin for their UK edition of the book. Here in the U. S., it’s published as Every Man Dies Alone by Melville House, and culminates a series begun in 2009 that includes three other novels by Fallada (Little Man, What Now?, The Drinker, and Wolf Among Wolves) and a reissue of Jenny Williams’ 2001 biography, More Lives than One.

“To celebrate the second lives of titles from the past,” The Independent asked about a dozen writers to nominate “a work from the first six decades of this [sic] century (1900-1960) that they would like to see in the bestseller limelight again.” Not all the responses qualify as neglected by any stretch of the imagination. The first item on the list, in fact, nominated by Bernardine Evaristo, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God has achieved the most telling sign of having been accepted as a mainstream classic: it has its own Cliffs Notes. Paul Bailey nominates The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, but unless my eyes deceive me, those words “National Bestseller” across the top of the Norton paperback edition tells me he already got his wish. Likewise, suggestions that works by Nabokov, Wallace Stevens, or even Henry Green–all of which are in print, readily available, and selling respectably, if Amazon’s numbers are any indication–are holding their own.

I do have to take the mention of Green to veer off topic for a moment and link to one of the neatest things I’ve stumbled across in the last month. Sometime in the last six months, the entire contents of LIFE magazine from 1935 to 1972 have been digitized and archived in Google Book. Among the surprising treats to be found in this goldmine of visual material: “The Double Life of Henry Green,” a nine-page profile of written by Nigel Dennis (himself a fully qualified neglected novelist based on the intermittently-reissued Cards of Identity). The article makes significant use (and fun) of Green’s desire to avoid having his face photographed, and Dennis’ text is lengthy, detailed, and revealing. It’s hard to imagine a major American magazine today devoting so much space to a non-American writer with no significant U. S. sales.

Back to the main topic, though.

Most of the titles proposed, in fact, are in print–not bestsellers, certainly, but still strongly supported by publishers. Thanks to Virago, F. M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter and Elizabeth von Arnim’s Vera are available, as is Josephine Johnston’s 1934 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of Midwestern farm life, Now in November, thanks to the Feminist Press. (I recommend taking a stroll through the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” display for this last title–it’s like a gallery of a midcentury American middlebrow classics.)

Cover of 'The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones'The only genuinely neglected book on the list–out of print in both U.S. and U.K.–is Charles Neider’s 1956 western novel, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, nominated by Clive Sinclair. “You’ve probably never heard of The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, or its author either,” says Sinclair.

But I suspect you’re more familiar with both than you know. Especially if you’ve seen Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks, which is Neider’s novel renamed. Among the scriptwriters Brando employed was Sam Peckinpah, who picked Neider’s brains, knowing that Hendry Jones was Billy the Kid in mufti. His version of Billy’s brief life is hailed as his masterpiece. But Neider’s book is better, better than any other book on the subject of men, horses and death, except Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry. Not a far-fetched comparison when you consider that Neider — though American-raised — was Odessa-born.

And, in a short review on Amazon, record producer Russ Titelman writes of the novel,

As far as I’m concerned, it is one of the great unsung American masterpieces on a par with A Death in the Family and So Long, See You Tomorrow. It is spare, poetic and honest. The story is a fictional eye witness account based loosely on the myth of Billy the Kid told by his sidekick. Neider uses language the way a photographer uses light. His descriptions of nature and the way the characters speak are so startlingly truthful that it makes you feel as though you had actually been there. I am haunted by this novel.

In a interview years after One-Eyed Jacks came out, Peckinpah called the movie “a piece of shit.” “You see, Marlon has a big penchant for becoming a ….” He went on to say,

Charles Neider, you know, spent two and a half years in New Mexico to get the true story of Billy the Kid. And finally he gave it up, went to Monterey and in six weeks wrote what he called The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones. It’s a great book. It should be read, and someday the picture should be made. So I was lucky enough at least to write a screenplay of it.

Neider (1915-2001) was a prolific editor, best known for his many collections of works by Mark Twain, particularly the release of The Autobiography of Mark Twain in 1959. He also wrote a number of his own works of nonfiction and fiction in addition to The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones. His last book, about his own struggle with prostate cancer, Adam’s Burden, was published just after his death from the disease.

Leave a Comment